Return to Debate menu
Republican regroupment:  Inside the Sinn Fein tent?

8 October 2006

For some time now Socialist Democracy has been in support of the Fourthwrite magazine and has been contributing to the Journal.  The basis of our support has been our perception that Fourthwrite represented an attempt at regroupment by republicans outside |Sinn Fein.  Such projects face an uphill struggle in our view, because the collapse of the Provo programme is also a collapse of the idea that the Irish revolution can be fought simply around questions of democracy and without advocating the self-organisation of Irish workers.  We are however willing to join in such initiatives and support the discussion they engender.  We feel however that Fourthwrite, in its last editorial, compromised such a project by suggesting a regroupment process that would include Sinn Fein.  Below we carry the editorial and the response we have sent to editor Tommy McKearney.  We welcome further contributions to the discussion.  Further information about Fourthwrite can be obtained from:

Fourthwrite editorial: Sinn Fein and the trade unions

There has been an obvious increase in the degree of interest shown by the Sinn Fein party in trade union activity over the recent past. MEPs Mary Lou McDonald and Baibre de Brun have hosted delegations of trade union officials to the European parliament while the party’s Dail spokesman on labour affairs, Arthur Morgan TD, has issued a steady stream of useful statements on issues relevant to organised labour such as his rejection of the ongoing process of privatisation in the Republic.

With active organisations in working class districts throughout the country, a positive engagement by Sinn Fein on behalf of working people can only be welcomed. Insurrectionary republicans of the last thirty years have not generally been opposed to the cause of organised labour but for far too long they have adopted a hands-off position. Consumed in a bitter armed struggle with the British state, many took the view that trade unionism was either a distraction at best or, in the aftermath of the TUC’s despicable support for internment; a hostile constituency at worst.

Although it is easy to see how many in the republican community formed these opinion, they were making a basic mistake in overlooking the absolute necessity to; first be part of workers’ structures and thereafter to see these structures not as something cast in stone and immutable but as vehicles that can be changed for the better through positive and enlightened participation.

The trade union movement in Ireland has for long been dominated at senior level by fellow travellers of reformists in the Irish Labour Party and even worse; reactionaries from the right wing of what used to call itself Democratic Left.

An infusion of radical, working class ideas and enthusiasm could work wonders on a movement that has been stagnating in partnership with the state and capital for the past twenty years. If Sinn Fein wishes though, to embark on this road, the question they must answer is to what extent the party and its supporters are willing to espouse and adhere to the ideals and tenets of working class politics. On several occasions in the past, political parties have emerged from the insurrectionary tradition and attempted to don the cloak of Connollyite/Larkinite labour. Many of those involved in these efforts have been absolutely genuine leftists but on almost every occasion, others in the party have been able to persuade the rest of the organisation to seek short-term opportunities offered by appealing to the ‘moderate middle ground’ as defined by the prosperous middle class. Inevitably this led to the slow demise of the would-be radical parties as working people simply lost faith in their promises.

An additional problem for those attempting to move from an insurrectionary phase and into consistent left politics is that not all of the old support base is homogeneous. Many former or indeed current members have one foot in the business camp and this often make labour rights’ confrontations difficult. It is relatively easy to picket Irish Ferries; what is to be done, though, if the culprit is an employer who used to loan the movement his car and house? For a committed left movement the answer is straightforward and so must it be for Sinn Fein if it is to have any credibility as an unambiguously pro trade union movement.

There is no objective reason why Sinn Fein cannot overcome these difficulties and make a real contribution towards improving the working class movement and the daily lives of ordinary people on this island. There are, however, no short cuts and no way in the long run that people will be bamboozled with fine words and pious aspirations alone. Sinn Fein has performed a series of amazing u-turns in the course of the past decade and some of their spokespersons have rightly pointed out that there is nothing inherently wrong with changing direction. The point is, though, to know what direction one is going and to be sure to follow that lead and not to swing with whatever wind blows. That might prove a difficult task for new Sinn Fein as it tastes the delights of office - whatever about power.

Fourthwrite’s recent editorial

Inside or outside the Sinn Fein tent?

02 October 2006

Dear Tommy,

I am writing to express our deep concern at the content of the editorial in the last edition of Fourthwrite. It is difficult to find a word in it that Socialist Democracy does not resolutely reject.

You argue in your editorial that:

· Sinn Fein dignitaries have hosted trade union delegations and issued 'useful' statements.

· This amounts to a left turn that can only be welcomed.

· Sinn Fein can infuse radical working class ideas if they espouse working class politics.

· The chief barrier to a left turn is the republican history of a cross-class alliance around armed struggle and current presence of small or medium employers either in Sinn Fein itself or in its periphery.

All of the above is incorrect. It prevents Fourthwrite from functioning as an opposition to the republican leadership and calls into question the political basis for uniting around the magazine.

It is quite clear that Sinn Fein has launched a mass publicity campaign to rebrand themselves as a socialist organisation. In addition to the tete-a-tetes with the union bureaucracy, Adams and other leading figures have staged a protest at the privatisation of Aer Lingus and opposed social partnership. A front organisation, éirígí, has promoted the social significance of the 1916 proclamation and are to be seen at demonstrations where a large Sinn Fein presence might be embarrassing.  Ógra Shinn Féin are constantly promoting themselves as radical socialist youth with lots of publicity activity empty of any radical content. Sinn Fein itself has erected expensive professionally designed signs across Ireland proclaiming themselves the revolutionary party!

But there are many reasons why we should not take Sinn Fein claims at face value. Aer Lingus was privatised immediately following the Sinn Fein photo-opportunity.  Where was the rest of the organisation? The protests with more than four members?  Sinn Fein oppose social partnership, yet the latest deal went through with almost no opposition and there is quite a cosy relationship between the organisation and the union bureaucracy that pushed through the partnership deal. The Sinn Fein/Trade Union links that you laud are between the Sinn Fein leadership and the trade union leaders who have been selling out the working class for decades. Arthur Morgan TD opposes privatisation in the 26 counties, but there is no apology or explanation for the support Sinn Fein ministers gave to privatisation initiatives while they were in government in the North.

In fact Sinn Fein’s political and economic programme is clearcut.  Their economic programme is for the continuation of capitalism in the 26 counties, with a daring few percent added to corporation tax in the hope of a slightly better public service.  Their political aim is to be in government in the Dail.  There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about a left coalition, but a two-year-old could see that the leadership aim is coalition with Fianna Fail.

But your editorial is widest of the mark when you refer to the home-grown millionaires in and around Sinn Fein.  By directing attention there you divert it from a much more glaring reality – Sinn Fein’s alliance with Irish capital as a class and, beyond them, with US and British imperialism through the mechanism of the Good Friday Agreement. 

Through the Good Friday mechanism the organisation is tied to a reactionary political settlement that preserves partition and sectarian division and to other clauses that mean a mass neo-liberal offensive in the North and the wholesale privatisation of services there. This alliance headlines the inevitable direction of Sinn Fein policy in the 26 counties.  Can an organisation so dependent on the political and economic support of the US defend workers rights in an economy dominated by US transnational companies? 

The battle against Coca-cola around their repression of Colombian workers saw senior members of Sinn Fein support the company and it emerged that Coke had donated money to the Shinners.  The amount was relatively small, but the point of such donations is that they tie you with threads of steel. Despite all the criticism Sinn Fein did not return the donation – to do so would have been a declaration of war against the US corporations.

Once we take into account Sinn Fein’s links with capital we are in a position to see what a left turn would be – repudiating the GFA and the inbuilt alliance with Fianna Fail, opposing coalition with Paisley, breaking off links with Downing Street and the Bush White house, joining with rank and file workers rather than the bureaucracy, tearing up Sinn Fein’s procapitalist economic programme, apologising for their support for privatisation in the North – it might be a good idea to elect a new leadership while they are about it!

There are many in Sinn Fein who consider themselves as being leftwing.  In order to do so they have to be able to write the definition of socialism to suit their own circumstances and excuse Sinn Fein its links with capitalism. Socialists should not to provide such people with a comfort zone in which they can cherish their illusions.  Sinn Fein is a party of the right.  The longer any deluded militants stay in it the less able they will be to play any progressive role in working-class politics.

The Fourthwrite platform is a wide one that, in our opinion, has left too much unresolved.  Those who contribute to it disagree in many areas and we have many issues to discuss if we are collectively to move forward and help build a new movement.  We would have preferred the magazine to resolutely oppose the Good Friday Agreement and Social Partnership, but, in the absence of such agreement, the bottom line for myself and for Socialist Democracy is that Fourthwrite be a radical voice outside the Sinn Fein tent. In our opinion those inside the tent are part of the problem, not part of the solution.


John McAnulty


Return to top of page